Last updated June 10, 2015
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The Children's Bureau

Shaping a Century of Child Welfare Practices, Programs, and Policies

As we celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Children’s Bureau, we welcome this edited book on child welfare. By delineating some of the legacies and illustrating the ways that the work of the Children’s Bureau has influenced modern-day child welfare practices, this book is a thought-provoking resource for practice and program improvements. We hope the reader will be inspired by the passionate commitment and a legacy of leadership of those serving in child welfare and will think carefully about new priorities and directions that will guide our work into our next century of service.

The social work profession has long identified child welfare as a core field of practice, as seen by the focus of the earliest social work agencies on “child and family welfare.” Indeed, passionate and visionary social workers launched the U.S. Children’s Bureau in 1912 to address the most critical issues affecting children and families. The Children’s Bureau has a century-long history linked to the profession and looks forward to setting the stage as a leader for the next century of serving children and families.

Current Children’s Bureau programs are designed to promote the safety, perma- nency, and well-being of all children—including those in foster care, available for adoption recently adopted, abused, neglected, dependent, disabled, or homeless— and to prevent the neglect, abuse, and exploitation of children. These key goals of child welfare practice—and the organizational and workforce conditions needed to achieve them—are addressed in this book. The book focuses attention on the Chil- dren’s Bureau’s commitment to building and using evidence- informed and culturally relevant practice.

The historical policy and practice backdrop for child welfare innovations in the 21st century offer a fitting framework for linking some of the future work in child welfare to the origins of the Children’s Bureau. Important issues are identified, such as unemployment and poverty and the need for more innovations involving poor, minority, and disenfranchised families, who often live in communities with few resources and beset by complex social and economic challenges. By delineating the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, we hope that this book will chart future agendas and innovations that may guide more effective practice, programming, and policies.

Joe Bock, MSW
Acting Associate Commissioner
Children’s Bureau
Administration for Children and Families
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


For generations, social workers have cared about children and their welfare. Many of the earliest social work and public health initiatives centered on the needs of children and how society could best care for and support them. At the forefront of these efforts has been the Children’s Bureau.

The Children’s Bureau grew out of the experiences of the settlement house movement and the first schools of social work, which took root at the turn of the last century. These early pioneers of social work were joined by leaders in the labor movement and other social activists who saw a federal role for protecting children and promoting their health and safety. Importantly, four of the first five heads of the Children’s Bureau, covering its first 50 years, were social workers.

The first director, Julia Lathrop (1912–1921), launched studies to identify what services and interventions were needed. She stated in her first annual report that the Bureau was to serve all children, to try to work out standards of care and protection that would give every child a fair chance in the world (U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1962).

Grace Abbott, the second director, served during the years 1921–1934. She was a strong advocate for maternal and child health programs, overseeing the initiation of the Sheppard–Towner Act (P.L. 67-97), an early public commitment to community-based interventions for infants and their mothers, which led to the decline of infant mortality.

From 1934 to 1952, Katherine Lenroot served as head of the Children’s Bureau, guiding its work through the Great Depression, the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935 (P.L. 74-271), and the second World War. Although she was involved in framing the Aid to Dependent Children program, only the child welfare provisions of the Social Security Act ended up in the Children’s Bureau. The administration of the Aid to Dependent Children program was housed in the new Bureau of Public Assistance.

Following Lenroot was Martha Eliot, a pediatrician who had run the Emergency Maternal and Infant Care program during World War II. Katherine Oettinger, who came to the Children’s Bureau after serving as dean of the Boston University School of Social Work, was the fifth head, serving from 1957 until 1968. She was a strong advocate for the Children’s Bureau in Congress, successfully increasing the Bureau’s budget and strengthening its programs (NASW Foundation, n.d.).

Many of the areas of focus in the early days of the Children’s Bureau—juvenile justice, child labor, maternal and child health, prevention of disability, and elimination of infant mortality—eventually became major programs within different federal agencies. An important factor relating to the work of the Children’s Bureau is that it has always been interdisciplinary, and from the start of federal child welfare services, there was support for the education and training of social workers and social work researchers.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW and the Children’s Bureau also have a long and collaborative history. In the early 1960s, the social work research section of the newly formed NASW was called upon to work with the Child Welfare League of America to develop a research agenda for child welfare. The Children’s Bureau has supported both individual field-initiated research studies and research centers over the years. This has led to the more recent implementation centers, quality improvement centers, and evidence-based home visiting programs.

The NASW Press is pleased to publish this book. It is one more indicator of the connections between NASW and the Children’s Bureau, and another reflection of the strong role that the social work profession has played from the beginning both with and within the Children’s Bureau. Organized and edited by Katharine Briar-Lawson, Mary McCarthy, and Nancy Dickinson, it showcases the continued social work commitment to the field. The 17 broad-ranging chapters, authored by current child welfare leaders, address the many practice and policy issues that make up child welfare service delivery. In doing so, they create a modern vision for family-driven and culturally congruent systems of care. The Children’s Bureau: Shaping a Century of Child Welfare Practices, Programs, and Policies is a testament to the complexity of child welfare today, and it sets a stage for the work that the Children’s Bureau can, and must, undertake in its second century.

Elizabeth J. Clark, PhD, ACSW, MPH
Executive Director


NASW Foundation. (n.d.). Katherine Brownell Oettinger (1903– ). Retrieved from

Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act of 1921, P.L. 67-97 (1921).

Social Security Act of 1935, P.L. 74-271, 49 Stat. 620 (1935).

U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. (1962). Five decades of action for children: A history of the Children’s Bureau. Washington, DC: Children’s Bureau.